Sports-Only Focus Harmful to Kids

Parents Should Ensure Balance Among Out-of-School Activities

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. -- Sports are the single most common extracurricular activities among America's youth, with 60 percent or more participating in at least one sport. However, taking part only in sports is associated with lower positive development and higher risky behaviors than combining sports and youth development activities, according to findings from Tufts University.

In research published in Developmental Psychology, Richard Lerner, Ph.D., professor of child development at Tufts' School of Arts and Sciences, and his students and colleagues reported that youth who participate exclusively in sports have among the lowest scores on competence, confidence, character, connection, and caring (all characteristics of positive development) and a related positive quality, contribution. They also have the highest scores on behaviors such as bullying, substance use and depression.

The same study found that youth who combine sports with participation in a youth development program have the highest scores for positive development and contribution and the lowest scores for risk and problem behavior.   Youth development programs are out-of-school-time activities that involve adult mentorship, life skills training, and opportunities for youth leadership. They include programs such as Boys & Girls Clubs, 4-H, Scouts and The First Tee.

"Parents should be certain that their teens balance participation in sports and in youth development programs," said Lerner, the Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science at Tufts' Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development.  "Participation in even one youth development program may counteract possibly detrimental influences of sport participation on teen emotional and behavioral health while also enhancing the health and well-being of their sons and daughters." 

Although some previous studies have suggested that participation in sports may be linked to some risk behaviors, a large body of research has indicated that sports participation is associated with psychological well-being, positive social development and higher academic and professional achievement. The Tufts study provided new insight by assessing whether participation in a particular combination of activities by fifth, sixth and seventh graders remains predictive of positive youth functioning after controlling for the total  time spent participating in out of school activities and duration of participation in sports. 

The work was based on a subsample of 1357 of the 3500 adolescents included in the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development conducted by the Lerner team and supported in part by a grant from the National 4-H Council.

"More than Child's Play: Variable- and Pattern-centered Approaches for Examining Effects of Sports Participation on Youth Development." By Zarrett, Nicole; Fay, Kristen; Li, Yibing; Carrano, Jennifer; Phelps, Erin; Lerner, Richard M. Developmental Psychology. Vol 45(2), 2009, 368-382

About Tufts University

Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's schools is widely encouraged.

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